Are Christians in the US allergic to community?

Are Christians in the US fundamentally uncomfortable with community?

I’ve been reading a book out of the excellent series of worship texts published by the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship called A More Profound Alleluia, edited by Leanne Van Dyk. The book explores what our liturgy says about our theology, and how our theology drives our liturgy– and sometimes, what we state as our theology can be belied by what we do with our liturgy. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in why we do what we do in worship.

I have a natural interest in the historical practices of the church because I’ve never quite felt comfortable clamoring to take down a fence until I understood why it was erected. And once I learn the reasoning behind something, perhaps it’s theological or symbolic, the historical nerd in me frequently says “well isn’t that cool? We should do that!”

There are, however, some historical practices of the church that I find harder to swallow, and I’m noticing that my resistance seems to be, at times, related to how much I identify in my individuality and independence. Lately, I’ve been thinking about where that part of my identity comes from.

Many people have noted that individualism is an essential part of understanding American culture. For better or worse, the political philosophy upon which this country was founded, establishing historical levels of freedom unheard of in any other country and now emulated by countries around the world and used as the measure of fundamental human rights and basic human decency, permits the individual with considerable ability to chart his or her own destiny. (For argument’s sake, I’m glossing over the not-shallow pool of legitimate justice issues that have often stemmed from historical prejudices and oppression, left to run rampant thanks to this freedom. They’re very important, but peripheral to my contemplations.)

If you think about the heritage of the country, with pioneers and cowboys and explorers traveling to map a new land, and folks packing up their belongings and traveling to parts unknown on the rumor of employment or better fortunes, it really makes sense why independence is so tightly woven into the fabric of our country. You had to be able to make it on your own, or you wouldn’t make it at all. Even after the country was settled, America has had a seriously difficult time with anyone trying to tell them what to do. The defense of independence, frequently labeled as “freedom,” is often a knee-jerk reaction in our country.

few have questioned whether individualism is such a good thing. When one begins to see how the theory of individualism tends to prize a certain ruthlessness over compassion, grace, and forgiveness, they might have a point. And honestly, if individualism has in any way caused this matchup between Hillary and Trump, I think I’m comfortable saying that it might not be as great as we suspected.

Be that as it may, individualism and independence are so fundamentally tied to the American culture, reinforced by shows like The Voice or America’s Got Talent where anyone can be a star if they work hard enough, that they’re not going anywhere soon.

To top it off, growing up as a girl in the 1990s, we were surrounded by these strong, independent female role models who preached that true feminism was total independence: you didn’t need anyone’s help, much less a guy’s, and it was all about embracing your awesome individuality. I was never really into soccer, but every girl had a poster of Mia Hamm on their wall, and so did I. I remember watching Xena and [that other girl] kick some serious butt, and Clarissa was so awesomely sassy as she “explained it all.” And on the music front, Gwen Stefani did not take any nonsense from anyone, and do I really need to mention the Spice Girls or Destiny’s Child? These women were female role models for a generation of girls, and defined feminism in a very particular way for that generation.

So this is where I’m starting from. I have 2 parts of my identity, my culture, that are fiercely independent. And in a lot of ways that’s good! It makes me step up and be a better version of myself every single day, because no one can do it for me. It’s made me resilient, and it gave me the confidence to follow a call to ministry without worrying whether I could take care of myself. I’m capable and smart, of course I can!

So.

A few weeks ago my senior pastor preached on the community of believers in Acts, and I can’t say that I’m ever particularly comfortable when that passage comes up. He used Acts 2:42-47, but a few chapters later in Acts 4 there’s a more complete description of what it was like living in that community:

32 All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. 33 With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all 34 that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales 35 and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need.

36 Joseph, a Levite from Cyprus, whom the apostles called Barnabas (which means “son of encouragement”), 37 sold a field he owned and brought the money and put it at the apostles’ feet.

Reading about this group of folks is uncomfortable because it sets up expectations about the big-C Church and those who are members of it. And they’re expectations that are directly counter to the ways I identify as a strong, independent person, both in my identity as an American and a woman.

In fact, I’d go so far as to say the culture of independence in our country, and the strain of independent-individualistic-feminism in which I grew up, are fundamentally incompatible with the kind of Christian community that we find in the book of Acts. Both of these cultures value pride in oneself above all others, and as Christians we’re called to sacrifice that self, to die to self for Christ.

This is a challenge that’s unique to the Christian church in America; I don’t know of any other culture that celebrates freedom and individuality to such a degree, nor can I think of another culture that has such a severe automatic response to being told what to do. We also don’t have a vast legacy of relationships that have been steeped for generations the way many older countries do, though we have a few. So if Americans don’t like something a group or community does, they usually leave it: they end the relationship. They boycott (Chick fil-A, Target), they sue, they torch it and find another community. There is no effort toward investing in living in an imperfect community. There’s rarely any value placed on the relationship that’s greater than the irritation of disagreement.

And everyone does this! We self-segregate more than ever, because more than ever we have the ability to do so, and it’s not healthy or beneficial to individuals or to our country at large. We pick colleges where we’re going to feel comfortable and not challenged, we live in neighborhoods with “people like us”, we go to churches where everyone agrees with us, which is seriously not healthy for Christians or for the Church– and we often shun those who attempt to be a part of our community but are different than us, or who disagree with us.

But that’s not how you live in community. When you live in community with others, at the level of these Christians in Acts, you live with them through the agreements and the disagreements. You love them in the times when you totally understand them, and in the times when you totally don’t get where they’re coming from. You appreciate them despite- and perhaps because of- your differences. And you don’t bolt from the community at the first sign of unpleasantness.

This country’s culture has made us allergic to living in true community like the example that was set for us. It is a naturalized cultural tendency to bolt from a community for any number of reasons, and be our individualistic, independent selves. But a Christian faith calls for a different response.

 

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Open hearts, open minds, open doors, open table.

This Sunday’s scripture is the story of the prodigal son, which most of us are pretty familiar with. But I don’t always pay attention to how Jesus sets up this parable in verses 1-3 of the 15th chapter of Luke:

Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” Then Jesus told them this parable:

He then tells the parable, and towards the end, when the son returns, the father says to his servants:

‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.

This Sunday, the first Sunday of the month, our church will celebrate Communion. As Methodists, we welcome to the communion table anyone who seeks to respond to Christ’s love and to lead a new life of peace and love. Our Book of Worship says, “All who intend to lead a Christian life, together with their children, are invited to receive the bread and cup. We have no tradition of refusing any who present themselves desiring to receive.” This practice of an “open table” comes from the Methodist understanding of Holy Communion as Christ’s table, not the table of The United Methodist Church or of the local congregation, and the recognition that Holy Communion may be an occasion for the reception of converting, justifying, and sanctifying grace.Read More »

“The shadow proves the sunshine.” –Switchfoot

This week’s scripture comes from Luke 13:1-9, and causes us to ask, who are we really? Is there a difference between our public persona and our private life? Does who we think we are match up with what we actually do?

Some who were present on that occasion told Jesus about the Galileans whom Pilate had killed while they were offering sacrifices. He replied, “Do you think the suffering of these Galileans proves that they were more sinful than all the other Galileans? No, I tell you, but unless you change your hearts and lives, you will die just as they did. What about those eighteen people who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them? Do you think that they were more guilty of wrongdoing than everyone else who lives in Jerusalem? No, I tell you, but unless you change your hearts and lives, you will die just as they did.”

Jesus told this parable: “A man owned a fig tree planted in his vineyard. He came looking for fruit on it and found none. He said to his gardener, ‘Look, I’ve come looking for fruit on this fig tree for the past three years, and I’ve never found any. Cut it down! Why should it continue depleting the soil’s nutrients?’ The gardener responded, ‘Lord, give it one more year, and I will dig around it and give it fertilizer. Maybe it will produce fruit next year; if not, then you can cut it down.’”

In this passage, Jesus preaches the hard call to repentance and obedience, and then tells a parable that says it isn’t too late. This is the Christian experience lived in the beautiful tension of both/and. We are simultaneously sinner and saint. We need the law that tells us the truth about our sinfulness and the gospel that tells us we are a new creation in Christ, freed and forgiven by God’s grace.

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“Comfort ye my people, saith your God.” –Handel’s Messiah; Isaiah 40:1

This Sunday’s sermon focus is all about fear. The scripture of the day comes from Luke 13:31-35:

At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.” He said to them, “Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.’ Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’”

In Sunday’s sermon, we’ll be asking ourselves: where are we afraid? What are the fears that inch their ways into our lives? Not things like heights, or the dark, but the things that we let have power over how we live our lives– fear of rejection, the loss of influence, health, prestige, etc.

In one of the images in this Sunday’s scripture, Jesus laments that the children of Israel won’t let him gather them under his wing, to comfort and protect them as does a mother hen. We are not so different today: why do we so often cling to our fears rather than run to the comfort and safety of Jesus?

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The Temptations—or is it “Just My Imagination”?

How fun is it to sing along to “My Girl”? We all have those songs that when they come on the radio we can’t help but roll down the windows, crank up the volume, and jam out; and I have to admit, The Temptations’ hits definitely make that list for me 🙂

This Sunday’s scripture is Luke 4:1-13, all about the temptation of Jesus:

Jesus returned from the Jordan River full of the Holy Spirit, and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness. There he was tempted for forty days by the devil. He ate nothing during those days and afterward Jesus was starving. The devil said to him, “Since you are God’s Son, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.”

Jesus replied, “It’s written, People won’t live only by bread.”

Next the devil led him to a high place and showed him in a single instant all the kingdoms of the world. The devil said, “I will give you this whole domain and the glory of all these kingdoms. It’s been entrusted to me and I can give it to anyone I want. Therefore, if you will worship me, it will all be yours.”

Jesus answered, “It’s written, You will worship the Lord your God and serve only him.”

The devil brought him into Jerusalem and stood him at the highest point of the temple. He said to him, “Since you are God’s Son, throw yourself down from here; for it’s written: He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you and they will take you up in their hands so that you won’t hit your foot on a stone.”

Jesus answered, “It’s been said, Don’t test the Lord your God.” After finishing every temptation, the devil departed from him until the next opportunity.

As we study this scripture passage this week, this Sunday’s sermon focus will be centered around the exploration of our personal temptation points. What are our priorities? Where do we spend our resources, our time– what demands our allegiance: pride, self-worth, envy, ambition?

I don’t know if we usually consider music as having much to do with temptation. Maybe it’s because it’s not tangible: we can be tempted by a jelly donut, and if we give in, eventually we won’t fit into our jeans. But if we’re tempted by music that glorifies things we know aren’t in line with our faith, can we see the consequences in the same way? A steady diet of that won’t make our jeans fit differently… but it might make our faith fit a bit differently.

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And can it be that I should gain?

And can it be that I should gain
An int’rest in the Savior’s blood?
Died He for me, who caused His pain?
For me, who Him to death pursued?
Amazing love! how can it be
That Thou, my God, should die for me?

Most scholars consider today’s hymn, found in our Methodist hymnal at #363, to be the one that Charles Wesley wrote to commemorate his conversion experience in May of 1738. This makes it an important hymn to give us a glimpse into the faith journey of the young Charles Wesley.

We’ve covered some of the influence that the Moravian Brethren had on the Wesleys during and after their first missional trip to North America, focusing mostly on what the early Methodists adopted from the Moravian traditions. It’s important not to forget, though, how much of a shock the present and practical faith of the Moravians was for the Wesley brothers, and how meeting them forced the Wesleys to rethink their own beliefs.

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That time Charles Wesley was attacked by a drunken mob: a study in joy.

Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Philippians 4:4

How do we experience joy through the music of the church– through singing, playing, and composing?

A point of clarification to start: joy is not the same thing as happiness. Happiness is an emotion, like sadness, anger, or grief, but joy is a state of the soul.

feel happy.

live in joy.

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A non-Anglican’s guide to the Book of Common Prayer

Almost a year ago, I finally got my own copy of the Book of Common Prayer. The BCP is a tool for worship that’s vital to faith practice for many Episcopalians*, but is frequently viewed with suspicion or bewilderment by non-Anglicans, if they’re even aware of its existence at all. When I got it, I didn’t have much of an idea of what I was acquiring at the time; it came in an order from Amazon along with a hymnal and some textbooks, and I set it aside, figuring I’d get to it eventually.

Last January, I was rereading Richard J. Foster’s Celebration of Discipline, and I decided to commit to the inward spiritual disciplines of meditation, prayer, fasting, and study for the duration of Lent. That’s when I discovered how essential the Book of Common Prayer can be to the modern life of prayer for Anglicans and non-Anglicans alike.

*There are a few terms that I’d like to clarify right off the bat, in case you’re not familiar with them. The Episcopal Church is the American derivation of the Church of England. The term “Anglican” thus refers to those within the Church of England, as well as to those who are considered Episcopalian, along with both churches’ liturgical traditions.

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5 lessons my dog taught me about being a music director

My dog has added so much joy, adventure, and love in my life, along with not a little bit of exasperation 🙂 but it’s always worth it. As I write, she’s currently snuggled up next to my legs, and it couldn’t be cozier. Of course, she would be on my lap if I let her, and then I wouldn’t get anything done…

dog on lap
“Oh, am I in the way?” #sorrynotsorry

Born on Epiphany 2012, Misha will be turning 4 years old in just a few months. I have learned so much from her in these past years, quite a bit of which stems from when she and I were training in agility in Richmond. I’m finding that these lessons apply extraordinarily well to my vocation and avocation as a pastoral musician.

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Certainty in faith, part 2.

This is the second part of my story, Certainty in faith. If you missed part 1, you can find it here.

“We talk about how to be a Christian, but we don’t talk about what it means when you are. We don’t talk about our God experiences, when that’s the very reason to be a Christian. No one comes to faith because they want to follow rules– they come to faith because they want to see God through Christ. They want the Spirit’s presence moving in their life. And that means it’s incredibly important for Christians to share about the Spirit’s moving in our lives. That is our call to testimony– not only who Jesus was and what he did, but what God is doing through Christ and the Spirit in our lives today.”

After undergrad, I was looking for someplace to move to, because there hasn’t been economic growth in New York State in a decade or three, and I really needed to go somewhere else to start out my life. I don’t know why I chose Richmond, Virginia. Sure, I had superficial justifications about it, the size of the city, the opportunities, the adventure, but really, it just felt right, so I went. I found a roommate on Craigslist, and packed up my car and moved south, without a job and without knowing anyone, just knowing that I should go, feeling that Richmond was where I was supposed to be I’ve learned since that that feeling is God’s nudge in my life. When I have that feeling, I know it comes from God, and I know to pay attention.

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